This weekend’s Strictly musicals event prompted discussion of favourite shows and films in the genre. The King and I is the only one my partner will watch, but I enjoy several. Among my classic favourites is Hellzapoppin’, originally a hit Broadway musical revue featuring the screwball comedy duo of John ‘Ole’ Olsen and Harold ‘Chic’ Johnson, debuting in 1938 and notable for its wild, anarchic structure.
The show ran from 22nd September 1938 to 17th December 1941, and was at the time the longest-running Broadway musical with 1404 performances – one of only three plays to run more than 500 performances in the 1930s.
A comedy hodgepodge full of sight gags and slapstick, the show, with the music and lyrics by Sammy Fain and Charles Tobias, was continually rewritten throughout its run to remain topical.
A circus atmosphere prevailed, with midgets, clowns, trained pigeons and audience participation adding to the merriment. Alongside John “Ole” Olsen and Harold “Chic” Johnson, it featured such performers as Billy Adams, Ray Kinney and the Aloha Maids, the comedy team Barto & Mann (Dewey Barto and George Mann), and many more.
It was adapted for film, released on 26th December 1941, by Universal Pictures, co-written by Nat Perrin, writer for the Marx Brothers, but, sadly, it wasn’t a hoped for box office success – perhaps no surprise, given its release just weeks after America declared war – and its failure contributed to the decline of the stage play.
I have to confess that I haven’t seen Hellzapoppin‘ for ages, and my memory of it may well be cheating, but I recall it being utterly barmy. Until today, though, I had no idea there was a tie-in daily newspaper strip, too, “Elza Poppin”, distributed by the King Features Syndicate, initially drawn by Ving Fuller, launched on 19th June 1939.
Almost none of the flavour of the original show was included in the strip, which was, it’s claimed, titled “Elza Poppin” because you couldn’t use even a variation on the word ‘Hell’ in a newspaper in those innocent halcyon days. Instead, it was all about the screwball doings of the wacky title character, and there are some gems of strips in the early run,
Writing is attributed to the stars of both the film and stage show, Olsen and Johnson, but very likely Ving Fuller wrote as well as drew the strip. Ving used the catchphrase “go fry ice!” in the comic.
Fuller’s last strip is dated 6th January 1940, when he was replaced by fellow screwball master George Swanson because of a contract dispute, who took over from 8th January 1940 to the strip’s end on 29th April 1944.
“Elza Poppin” later became more of a typical army humour strip, with the title character frequently not even appearing for days at a time. Its popularity slowly declined, as had support for the stage play after the film’s release, with fewer papers running it in the US, and it was dropped in favour of a daily version of Swanson’s other strip of the time, which started as a Sunday, “The Flop Family”.
If you enjoy the film, there are two great articles on the strip, “Go Fry Ice! Ving Fuller’s Zany Elza Poppin” by Paul C. Tumey, on the Screwball! blog, and “Camp Swanson” by Gel Apedoorn, on The Fabulous Fifties blog, the latter focusing on the strip’s later period.